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I came across this slideshow by Kelley Bollen recently about aggression in dogs in relation to shelter work: WARNING, some of the images contained in these slides are GRAPHIC images of dog bites on humans and dogs.

Let me start out by saying that yes, I did read all 141 slides and yes, I do agree with a lot of what she says. From the research I did, I know that she’s a positive reinforcement trainer, she doesn’t believe in dominance, and she believes that a lot of aggression stems from fear. Fear is, for obvious reasons, pretty rampant in the shelter system, so her work makes sense and the information she’s giving to shelter workers as to fear, canine body language and positive reinforcement training is progressive. All good points that I applaud her for making.

But as much as I liked all that, her slideshow appalled me for other reasons. By my count, there are approximately 30 images of dogs displaying teeth (I did not count the dogs who were in aggressive stances or giving warning signals, only the ones who were showing some serious teeth). Of those 30 images, six of them are German shepherds, six of them are pitbulls or pitbull type dogs and two of them are Rottweilers. So what is she telling shelter workers? That of all the 161 AKC recognized breeds out there, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls and Rottweilers account for nearly half of the aggression cases.

She does not come right out there and say that, of course. But she puts the idea in the back of the mind. Of particular note is slide six, featuring a teeth-baring Rottweiler and a lunging German shepherd. The slide states, “Some breeds of dog are bred specifically to be more aggressive.”

I never thought I would find myself saying this, but on this issue, I agree more with this:

Pit Bull blame sign

As a side note, I do NOT believe in his training methods nor do I recommend or subscribe to them, but I DO like this quote.

I’m not saying that some dogs are not genetically predisposed to aggression. I believe they are, so does Dr. Patricia McConnell. For more on this subject, I recommend reading her book The Other End of the Leash. Here’s the difference between what Kelley Bollen and Dr. McConnell are saying though – Kelley Bollen is saying that some breeds are predisposed toward aggression and in fact bred to be more aggressive, and Dr. McConnell is saying some dogs are. Dr. McConnell also suggests that while aggression may be somewhat linked to genetics, it can still be altered through behavior modification. She does not recommend euthanasia but in the most extreme cases. In contrast, Bollen states in one of her slides that aggression cannot be cured and seems to recommend euthanasia for many, many dogs with varying levels of behavioral issues.

I was floored by Kelley Bollen’s depiction on page six of that slide show. Not only was she perpetuating breed stereotypes, but she was completely off base in her understanding of what these dogs are actually bred to do.

Boone barking

This is Boone, my friend’s dog who I was photographing and training with. In this photograph, he’s barking because he wants my friend to throw his ball. Look – I can make a German shepherd look scary in a photo too.


Here’s Boone about a minute later. Not so threatening right?

Both GSDs and Rotties are herding dogs. Contrary to the belief of many (owners of these dogs included) they were not bred to “protect” livestock, they were bred to move livestock or keep livestock bunched in a stationery graze without wandering. There are dogs that are bred to protect livestock, most notably the Great Pyrenees. These dogs are not herding dogs and serve a completely different purpose than herding dogs. They are raised with the sheep from a young age and their sole purpose is to keep the sheep safe from predators and other intruders (including human thieves). Dogs like the Rottweiler and the German Shepherd (at least those who are well bred) are not bred for aggression, they are bred for herding instinct, which is entirely different. In fact, an aggressive herding dog is the absolute last thing that you want, and it is something Shelby and I work on constantly, for her own mental well being, my social life and to move toward our goal of eventually trialing some day.

Now, please turn to slide 83 which states in big letters, “Aggression is not curable.”

Smokey and Dusty sleeping

Smokey and Dusty sleeping together in the backseat of my car (pre-decent camera)

I’m sorry – what? When we first rescued Smokey he was hell bent on killing just about every dog he came in contact with. Using a positive reinforcement behavior modification program, he became what’s depicted above. We never had a single incident with him after several months of training. It took work and time and patience and a lot of treats, but we did it, just like we’re doing it with Panzer and Shelby, and they’re making progress, slowly but surely, lots of progress.

Any dog can bite, a point Kelley Bollen makes in her slideshow, and with which I agree. I believe she should take her own point when it comes to aggression. I understand, to some extent, where she’s coming from. She says that average, every day pet owners, want a healthy, happy dog. They don’t have a lot of knowledge of canine behavior and releasing an aggressive dog into their care can be dangerous and is completely irresponsible. I agree, but that doesn’t mean that every not perfectly healthy and happy dog has to die, and it certainly doesn’t mean that aggression isn’t treatable, manageable and yes, curable. It is, I’ve seen it cured. Most dogs don’t just bite completely out of the blue, they give warnings, so our goal should be to educate our adopters and the public as to what these warnings are, not just give up on the dogs. And of course, we should place the dogs that are tougher with families who are completely aware and more experienced, those families exist, I know because mine is one of them!

And, above all, we should evaluate dogs based on their individual characteristics, not the size of their head or the shape of their ears. Dogs are individuals, just like people, breed bias is akin to racism, and I like to hope that most of us are beyond that by now.